NTP's Fate Hinges On 'Father Time' - InformationWeek

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NTP's Fate Hinges On 'Father Time'

The Network Time Protocol provides a foundation to modern computing. So why does NTP's support hinge so much on the shaky finances of one 59-year-old developer?

(Image: Pixelman via Pixabay)

(Image: Pixelman via Pixabay)

Shaky Finances

Stenn called the Linux Foundation's $7,000-a-month contribution to NTP "wonderful and awesome." But he said that he hasn't been told by the Linux Foundation yet whether the payments will continue after the end of April, their current end date. Even if they do, that amount doesn't come close to sustaining the effort needed for NTP, he said.

Asked to describe a proper NTP support organization, Stenn listed a project research scientist, project manager, several full-time developers, two technical writers, a system and network administrator, and two standards "wranglers" to represent NTP to the IETF, IEEE, and ITU. As he toted it up in his head, he came out at a minimum of $3 million a year.

If he gets more support, he'd prefer to obtain it from a broad base of NTP users. "I need everyone to help a little bit, not one or two bigs," Stenn said. Here's his reasoning: Suppose one big technical company comes in and doubles the financing behind his effort with $100,000 a year. When they call with a suggested change to NTP, what's he supposed to say?

For companies looking to make a big donation, therefore, the best approach might be to fund the Linux Foundation, which can support efforts such as NTP through the recommendations of its industry advisory board. That foundation includes security expert Bruce Schneier, and Columbia law professor Eben Moglen, chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center, among other industry experts.

With the Linux Foundation's $7,000 in monthly cash flow, Stenn finances his movement between his home lab, in Talent, Ore., and the NTP servers located in San Jose, Calif. In Oregon, Stenn lives with his wife and does most of his patch inspection, code writing, and release building three weeks a month. The fourth week, he stays in San Jose, close to two colocation data center providers that host NTP computers. He rents a room there to work on server and network administration, maintain the email list, and check on server backups.

Much of the travel, room, replacement hardware such as disk drives, or needed commercial software such as the Intuit QuickBooks for NTP and NTF accounting, must come out of the $7,000 monthly stipend or be charged to his consulting business.

Most of his 17 to 20 servers came out of a one-time, $10,000 grant in 2010 from the Internet Society, a policy and technology infrastructure advisory body for the Internet founded in 1991. Those servers are running at ISC.org in Redwood City, Calif., which hosts BIND and several other open source pieces of Internet infrastructure. For 15 years, it has provided space, electricity and some management "smart hands" to host NTP operations, without charging, said Stenn. "They would love for us to pay them," he said, and he once totaled the monthly bill at $1,400. But ISC.org also knows the NTP project can't pay and continues to host it, Stenn added.

Stenn also uses five to six servers at a Hurricane Electric colocation in Fremont, Calif., as a disaster recovery site. The cost of those servers is charged to his consulting business. According to Stenn, those charges against what little consulting he still does has made his business a barely break-even proposition for three of the last four years.

In addition to his consulting business, Stenn founded the non-profit Network Time Foundation in 2010 in hopes of having an umbrella organization that could support multiple network time projects and accept donations.

For most of that period, he said he has collected membership fees from only two companies, Meinberg and VMware, the marketshare leader in virtualization software. The latter also contributes code. More recently, four other firms signed up: Microsemi, ixSystems, Deer Run Associates, and Sol.net Network Services. According to Stenn, their fees support the foundation's part-time business development consultant, Sue Graves, and continued efforts to build membership.

VMware became a first-year contributor at $12,000 and has upped its donation since then. Accurate network time is crucial to VMware's products as it tries to coordinate virtual machine activity in data centers and to live-migrate running virtual machines between hosts. "NTP synchronizes the time of a physical or virtual host … in a unique and mathematically elegant way," said Mike Adams, director of vSphere product marketing.

NTF's nonprofit model is good, "but it needs more companies to make a contribution," said Heiko Gerstung from Meinberg. "The companies currently supporting NTP on behalf of the rest of the planet are not enough."

Next Page: The nightmare before Christmas

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive ... View Full Bio

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ThomasW840
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ThomasW840,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/16/2015 | 1:44:10 AM
Re: Yes, some contribute, some don't
So why don't all the FOSS distro vednros band together and start a FOSS foundation, and allow the distro installer to donate to suport critical base apps & systems (and optionally along with other groups and efforts)?  Even give them 501 tax status and writeoffs! You KNOW their donations would get a bump every April. :)

 

Tweeks
ThomasW840
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50%
ThomasW840,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/16/2015 | 1:41:34 AM
Why not centrlize critical app/protocol financial support at the distros?
Each GNU/Linux distro should have a post install "donate to FOSS" option that allows users of FOSS or Linux distros to donate to these critical, base apps and sysyems.  Very simple issue to solve here folks..

Tweeks
hstenn
IW Pick
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hstenn,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/15/2015 | 11:12:08 PM
Re: Yes, some contribute, some don't
Thanks a bunch, Charlie!

Slight clarification: Network Time Foundation is not "my" non-profit, I'm just the founder and president. it's there for public benefit.

There are "donate" and "join" links at www.nwtime.org and we do also accept PayPal.  We're looking at some other "ways to send money".

The feedback and support we've already seen is heartwarming, and it will currently cover about 2 more weeks of my time.  We've also heard from a few companies that have said "we saw the article and we're looking to help, we'll be in touch soon."

Network Time Foundation has no anonymous institutional or governmental supporters.  If you don't see their name on our site, they're not supporting us directly.  The reason Linux Foundation is not there is they insisted on sending their money directly to me and PHK, instead of to NTF.  I can appreciate their reasons.  Having said that, if you are using software or equipment that uses network time and you don't see that company listed, please contact them and ask them to support us!  They will listen to you more than they'll listen to us...
hstenn
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hstenn,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/15/2015 | 10:39:30 PM
Re: If UTC stands for Coordinated Universal Time, then why TAI?
In English, TAI is "International Atomic Time".  In French it's "Temps Atomique International".

 

In English, UTC is "Coordinated Universal Time", while in French it's "Temps Universel Coordonné".  This way the French and English speakers are equally unhappy with the acronym.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/15/2015 | 5:11:27 PM
If UTC stands for Coordinated Universal Time, then why TAI?
I have always wondered why Coordinated Universal Time is abbreviated UTC. There's a gem of an explanation below by Jeff_Logullo, who happens to be a pre-sales engineer for the Oracle's Public Sector Systems division. Can anyone confirm what he's saying? Jeff doesn't remember where he first heard the story.

Then, 2), can someone explain to me why TAI is used as the acronym for International Atomic Time? (Don't tell me it's the French, again--temps atomique international?)
curts88
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curts88,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/15/2015 | 11:59:20 AM
Free PTP implementation for Windows?
Last time I checked (sometime in 2014) there were no free implementations of PTP for Windows. This situation probably needs to change if we expect PTP to gradually replace NTP. Maybe Microsoft should include PTP support in Windows 10?
Li Tan
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50%
Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
3/14/2015 | 7:04:49 AM
Re: Is there really a problem?
Such kind of important open source protocol deserves more attention - it's so important that everybody took it for granted. Then it's a real trouble if one day it stops working.
Charlie Babcock
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50%
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/13/2015 | 7:25:01 PM
Oops, Coverity is a hidden contributor
I've learned there are a few hidden contributors to NTP. For example, Stenn uses almost 100% open source code but I knew he liked to check his code against the Coverity's security and bug detecting software, a commercial service. So the first version of this story listed Coverity as a service he had to pay for from his slender resources. It turns out that Coverity contributes its service to NTP. Stenn has also used BitMover's BitKeeper, commercial software for source code management, which he likes better than open source git. "Because (CEO) Larry McVoy appreciates the NTP Project, they've freely given my entire team licenses to bk, and they've given us free enterprise-class service as well, for nearly '14 years' time,'" Stenn wrote in a follow-up message.
jeff_logullo
IW Pick
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jeff_logullo,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/13/2015 | 6:53:30 PM
UTC = Coordinated Universal Time
Great article - thanks for shedding light on the issue, especially that of the unsung heroes of the internet and the open source community!

One small comment: the abbreviation "UTC" stands for "Coordinated Universal Time". You might wonder how that acronym makes sense... seems it should be "CUT" instead.

We English speakers call it Coordinated Universal Time -- which would make the acronym CUT.

French speakers, however, call it Temps Universel Cordonné -- which would result in TUC.

What to do? Compromise! Instead of CUT or TUC, the alternative UTC was chosen. It plays no favorites! Strange but true.

The wikipedia entry for Coordinated Universal Time has more details, including a reference to the IAU resolution in 1976 when this decision was made.
GIGABOB
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50%
GIGABOB,
User Rank: Strategist
3/13/2015 | 2:12:21 PM
Is there really a problem?
As a prior Oregon developer who needed a real job I appreciate Stenn's dilemma.  I am less concerned about shipping Stenn a few bucks than creating a better vehicle to support critical open source protocols like NTP. 

Stenn really needs help i nunderstanding how to monetize his efforts.  I suggest a microcent per millisecond.

At the end of the day do you see a lack of industry support for this activity or a vicious fight for gatekeeper rights?
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